I have never met Stephen King and likely never will. But I am certain that I know his least favorite Schoolhouse Rock Video. It’s this one:
I read a fantastic book by Stephen King called On Writing. If you haven’t read this book and want to be a writer, you should read it tomorrow. It’s better than a weekend long writing conference. Plus, with paperback prices being what they are, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper.
There are so many things that surprise you when you read the book. For instance, he read and recommended the first three Harry Potter books. He played in a band with other writers, including Amy Tan. He was so drugged out in the eighties that he doesn’t remember one moment of writing Cujo. He also thinks that plots weaken your story and that your characters should write your stories for you (really). Those are just the ones I can think of right now.
But perhaps the most controversial thing that I heard him say from a writing standpoint is that he HATES adverbs. You read that right: he hates the “-ly” words.
King talks about the toolbox that every writer should have in the book. One of the important tools he recommends is grammar (here’s another surprising thing I learned, he used to teach a class on grammar for High School called “Business English” before he was a world-famous writer of fiction). But even though adverbs are part of the language and are perfectly grammatically acceptable, he thinks writers should never use them. Why? Because King says that adverbs are the tools of a timid writer.
Adverbs are “a word or phrase that qualifies an adjective, verb or other adverb or a word group, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc. (source: Google). But, King compares adverbs to dandelions in the lawn. Sure one of them here or there is not big deal, but sooner or later you will have an infestation that wrecks your writing’s lawn.
Adverbs are the tools of a timid writer. King says that when you use them “the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or picture across.” He says that if you did a sufficient job with telling your story and describing the situation then you don’t need them. So do that (meaning, tell your story sufficiently) instead.
In the past, I use adverbs and adverbial phrases, frequently (ahem…). Up until recently, I used them unrepentantly. While I respect King’s opinion and believe unquestionably and inarguably that he is an expert on writing, I am not sure I agree completely with his point.
My writer’s lawn needs work apparently.
But despite my respect of the body of work and success that King has to back his claim, am I ready to throw out a whole type of word just because he thinks it’s “timid writing”? Honestly (GAH!), I am not sure. I sure as heck want him (and even more importantly, his publisher) to think I am a good writer, not a timid one, but I kind of like adverbs. It’s a real writing dilemma for me and since I read that part of the book I think about it… constantly!
So I ask you writers: are adverbs weak writing or are they useful descriptive tools? * I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below.
* Don’t worry, Stephen King is WAY too famous to read my posts and will likely never know what you say here, so be honest!
Terri Lively is a career marketing professional that has unique experience in the areas of messaging and client relations. She helps professionals that want to grow their influence and enhance their content for publication. For the past 15 years, she has been helping her clients create marketing materials that effectively communicate their message and get results, across all types of media. More about Terri can be discovered at http://www.terrilively.com.